Aggelos wearing his smartglasses. Photo courtesy of Angelos Getsis
Angelos Getsis is a high school senior from the Greek city of Arta, who recently won the Local Award in Google’s 2014 Science Fair – an online competition for freakishly smart teenagers from all over the world. The invention that placed him as this year's smartest Greek kid is a pair of smartglasses that help the blind navigate the city. Aimed at potentially replacing white canes (the walking sticks used by the blind), Angelos' glasses vibrate to warn the wearer of possible obstacles.
Even though he has never met a blind person in his life, Angelos hopes that with this project he can help those with visual impairment and raise awareness in the rest of us.
VICE: How did you decide to take part in Google’s 2014 Science Fair?
Angelos Getsis: I attended the competition as a spectator last summer and I was inspired by another participant, Harry Ioannou, who was one of 15 finalists. He came up with a glove that helps those who are not strong enough to lift everyday objects on their own – so I wondered if there was anything I could do to help people around me because I have been building things for some time. Google’s competition is open to 13-18 year olds so it was perfect. My project won the Local award – which means first place in Greece – but it was also in the top six in Europe and top 32 in the world. Was that the first time you tried your hand at engineering?
It was not the first time I've dealt with engineering, but it was the first time I built something to help people. Since I was 13, I have been working mainly with microelectronics and remote control. When I was little, I would mess around with everything I could find in the house, making my mum run after me constantly. But the glasses were the first time I got involved with programming. I just googled everything I need to know and kind of taught myself. How did you come up with the idea for the glasses?
One day, this idea crossed my mind: I thought that, with a few minor adjustments, the sensors used in robots for environmental perception could be installed in spectacles to help someone move around. I thought about it long and hard and after a week of work, I built them. I would stay up late at night to work on them because I had to go to school in the day. My parents didn’t know exactly what I was working on, but they supported me. Aren't there any other similar products on the market?
I did some research to see if there were any similar projects. Most reviewers wrote that already existing similar products – like canes with electronic components – are often not easy to use. Inventors and companies try to squeeze as much as they can into their products to make them competitive. I don’t blame them for that, but that way the purpose of each project is lost – it becomes too complex and expensive to actually help.
My real competitor is the simple white cane. If you try to build something way more complex than that, you will lose. What people need is something simple and cheap; something that you can wear and immediately be ready to roam the streets, without needing any training.
How do the glasses work?
They are still in the prototype stage. They are battery operated and they have an on/off switch. I wrote up the code using programming software and then I transferred it to the glasses. I didn’t add sound but installed a vibration motor, so as not to interfere with the blind person’s hearing. When one is walking they also need to be able to hear what is going on in their immediate environment. Every time an obstacle is in your way, the glasses vibrate.
Photo courtesy of Angelos Getsis
What did you use to put them together?
I had the frame in my room already – t’s from a pair of sunglasses. I was in my room thinking about where to install the mechanism, and that was lying around so that’s where I put it. It was cheap, too, so it fit in with the whole concept. The rest of the material I bought from different stores. The glasses are comprised of a microprocessor and two sensors. One ultrasonic proximity sensor and a sensor that detects the position of the wearer’s head so the glasses “understand” what direction they are facing. How much did the whole thing cost?
It ended up costing about 30-40 Euros [£25-32]. How long did it take you to make them work?
They worked on the first go. I wanted them to be simple, because the simpler something is, the simpler it is to use. I didn’t encounter many setbacks. Do you dream of one day working for Google?
I wouldn’t mind at all, because I have been to their offices in Greece and I have also seen photos of their facilities around the world, and they are very nice. Right now however, my plan is to make this project a reality.
This summer, I changed the glasses again; I feel there is room for improvement. It would be amazing if I managed to put them on the market, because that way they could actually make a difference. In the future, I want to build more things to help and change the world. Now that I’ve started, I don’t want to stop.
Have you ever met a blind person?
No, I have never met one. Have people with visual impairment approached you at all?
I saw recently that the website of an association of parents of children with visual impairment in Athens has mentioned my project, and that gave me great joy because I saw that some people now know there is someone out there trying to do something for them. I haven’t yet managed to contact someone. But that will probably happen a little later because right now I am in the final year of school and have to focus on studying.